My message title today is “Lessons in Grace (Learned the Hard Way).” And as an educator I’ve learned that most of the lessons that we, the really important lessons tend to be learned the hard way. Wish it weren’t true, but it’s true and I think part the reason is because we’re more likely to remember them then.
Well more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be an awesome wife and a great mother. And I was pretty successful in academia and in my career, but that paled in comparison to what I wanted to be more than anything and that was a successful mother. So imagine how distressed I was when I found out I wasn’t. I felt like I was failing day after day after day. And feeling guilt and yes, Juan Carlos, I think a lot of it had to do with that Jim and I had four boys within seven years time. But I don’t like to blame it on that because I would go out and I’d see these other mothers and they looked like they had it all together, and my boys were tumbling over each other in the grocery line; I would hear the grocery lady say, the checkout lady ‘don’t poke your little brother in the eye’ while I’m trying to write a check and I’d be like oh my gosh, now what have we done? And I would say is this my voice snapping at this wonderful, darling cashier, ‘don’t worry, we’re leaving now.’ I thought this is me? This is not the mother that I had imagined that I would be.
And so I lived with mommy guilt and it was my constant companion for many years, until I learned, I fell at my knees and I learned of this precious, precious gift that mommy guilt actually is. It’s a gift because through it, I discovered mommy grace. And I learned things about Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior that I never, ever would have learned without having to go through mommy guilt. And so when I became an educator, I saw that I was not alone in these feelings like I thought I was. I kept seeing mother after mother, they worked in the office, their children went to the office, some of them were teachers and they would talk about ‘I’m a bad mom; I’m having a bad day.’
And so I thought, you know, if there’s nothing else I do, if I can encourage moms to see themselves as God sees them, as awesome moms, then I have to write this book and I have to give it to moms to help them.
And now, I want to give you some ideas of what we did to celebrate Mother’s Day at my house. Maybe you’ll want to follow them and maybe you won’t. But my husband always did an awesome job of Mother’s Day. And he always remembered, and even though he would grumble and he would say; and I see him out there, sorry Jim, he would say ‘Sheila, I don’t know why I’m doing all this, you’re not my mother. The boys should be doing this.’ And the boys were little, but the boys were too little and so Jim wanted to make sure that I was honored and that was his heart, that was his intent.
One year we took pictures and we went.. this is way back before digital age, and we went down to pick up our pictures. I couldn’t believe what I saw; had to look kind of carefully. Do you see my son Scott? He’s in the foreground there with the gravy drool coming out of his mouth. And if you look really carefully, there’s a chicken bone also stuck up his nose. And if you look at me, my eyes are closed. And I don’t think it was just the flash. This was very, very fun. We had wonderful, wonderful rich, rich times as a family and we laugh and still do a lot.
But the lesson I learned is this: Not the picture of perfection but the picture of grace. That’s the picture I pray my life will be. I don’t want to be perfect. Well I would, but I know I learned that’s impossible. And would it actually do any good to be perfect? What message am I sending to my children that they have to be perfect? It’s not possible. So I can’t be a picture of perfection, but I can be a picture of grace. And hopefully and prayerfully that’s what people will see, my boys will see and that’s what the mothers at my school will see.
Ephesians says it this way: “It is by grace you have been saved through faith, not of yourselves, but it is a gift from God.” There’s absolutely nothing I can do, nothing to earn this grace. It is merely truly a gift and what a precious, precious gift it is.
My first born Jason was only six months old, and it was Christmas Eve day and I had over extended myself, as usual, and I was busy, busy, busy trying to impress my husband’s family. They were all coming over for a candlelight dinner after Christmas Eve services here in the Crystal Cathedral. But I had this very unrealistic menu that I had planned: Homemade bread, homemade pie, roast, the whole nine yards. And never took into account my six month old baby who just might get in the way. And I had him in his little walker and he was scooting around in the kitchen and the flour was flying everywhere and I had bowls and I was almost tripping over him and then I got this brilliant idea, so I thought. It was a beautiful balmy, Southern California day and I thought Jason will be really happy playing out there in the patio, out of my way.
So I picked him up in his walker and carried him outside and I put him out on the patio, ran back in, and all of a sudden I heard this piercing cry. I barely made it back into the kitchen. And I looked out the window: there was my six month baby face first in the rocky soil on the edge of the patio, crying. I felt like the world’s worst mother. How could I have done that? How could I have gotten my priorities so mixed up that I was more concerned with leaving a good impression of me on my in laws as opposed to taking care of my little baby. I ran out there and picked him up; he had a few bloody scratches on his face, nothing else, thankfully. He cried himself to sleep on my shoulder and as he did, the bake off in the kitchen was no longer important. I had let my baby down.
Those tentacles of guilt, it felt like they were squeezing the life out of my soul. I thought ‘how am I supposed to show myself at church tonight? Some Christian mother I am.’ But I did, I went, I went through the motions and I sat here in church and I just felt so heavy and so guilty. And finally, even the Christmas carols weren’t doing anything for me. Finally I prayed and I said ‘Jesus help, please help me. I feel terrible. I feel so guilty.’ Well, just then, as it happened all day long, I had been replaying and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, this mental movie had been going on in my head. I could see my little son’s precious little feet scurrying, scampering across that patio, hitting the lip and then falling face first into that rocky soil. Over and over again I saw that in my mind but this time, as I was replaying that mental movie, as Jason’s little face, as I saw it in my mind going into the rocky soil, two big huge loving gracious powerful hands of God swooped in. And my son, whom I had let down, was caught by God, his heavenly Father.
Christ was born in my life that night in a new way. He came, He was born as my Savior to give me grace, to say to me ‘Sheila, you are going to mess up, you are going to fall on your face, but that’s okay. I’m here to forgive you and to love you anyway.’ The lesson in grace I learned the hard way was this: God is there to catch us when we fall. He is there to pick us up when we stumble. He will clean up our messes. What a priceless gift. It is by grace, Sheila, you are saved, not because you’re a perfect mother and you didn’t let your kids down. No it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not anything you did by yourself, Sheila, it is a gift from God.
Now I love to share this message of grace to the kids at the school, and every now and then I get an opportunity, and every opportunity I have, I’m in there and I’m telling the kids you are forgiven and isn’t this great news and awesome, good, good news, and one time after I was sharing this, they had a Q&A with the children. A darling teenager raised her hand and she said, “Mrs. Coleman, you say we’re forgiven.” “Yes, you are, JC, you are forgiven.” “But you know what,” she said, “I can’t forget that thing I did that I wish I hadn’t done. I know I’m forgiven, but I can’t forget it. I keep remembering it.” And God, in His infinite mercy, gave me this thought: I said, “JC, when you can’t forget, remember! Remember that you’re loved and you’re forgiven. Every time you remember it, remember that.” And so the lesson and grace we learn the hard way is this: When you can’t forget, remember! Remember you are loved and you are forgiven.
One of the pleasures of being a school administrator, especially here, is the wonderful relationships we have with our beautiful Christian teachers. And Carol Aspling was just a newlywed and a first year teacher when I started at the school, so that means that Carol and I, I think we’ve been in education together. This is our 14th year we’re finishing up together. And we couldn’t wait to see her begin to have a family because Carol was one of these squeamish teachers who would bring the kids in if they had a bloody nose, or they were vomiting, we got to clean up the messes and we thought just wait, just wait, just wait. But Carol was an athletic vivacious, beautiful Christian teacher and sure enough, she had a few years later, a beautiful, beautiful son Jacob. Jacob was not that old when Carol came into my office one day and she said ‘Sheila, they’ve learned I have a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. And because of it, Jacob is the only child I can have.’ She said, ‘But that’s okay, because Jacob is enough. In fact, he’s more than enough.’
Now imagine how scary it was for Carol and for David, her husband, when Jacob at the age of three was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease. Very, very rare disease, so you don’t need to worry, but usually with this disease there are what we call residual effects. But Jacob was one of those children who was left with several large aneurisms on his aorta. And one of the dangers of that are blood clots. And even despite attempts to prevent them, one day Carol came in and she said, ‘they found a blood clot in Jacob’s heart on the aneurism, leading to his heart’ and she said ‘it’s not going away. Nothing is dissolving this blood clot.’
Well I encouraged Carol to have the children in the choir pray and then it came back to me that she had done that. She’d gone to our children and she said, but this is what she said to them: ‘I believe in a God who is big enough to erase our sins. And how much easier isn’t it for Him to erase a tiny little blood clot.’ And so the following week, we had a concert here at the church, typically that concert brings in about a thousand people. And so I secretly asked the people, the women in my office to order a thousand erasers. And at the end of the concert, I encouraged them to.. I had all of the ushers come forward, we told the story of Jacob and all the ushers came forward and they carried bowls of erasers. And we asked, I challenged the people there and the children, I said ‘if you will come and promise to pray for Jacob that God will erase that clot, will you come down and get an eraser.’ About a thousand people came forward, they got their erasers and for months later, I would see everywhere I walked in the school, I would see on desks these erasers. Jacob’s name written on them, some of them, bible verses written on the others.
And miracle of miracles, about three months later Carol came in and she said ‘the cardiologist said I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up because Jacob’s blood clot is gone.’ So that’s the miracle. Let’s give God a hand.
Now I asked Carol if she and Jacob and her dad would be here today so that we can get an update. And so they’re right here in the front. Jacob and Carol and Henry. Can you stand? Henry Lomakin. Every time I see Henry, he pulls out that eraser and he says ‘Sheila I carry it with me all the time now to remember what a big God it is that we serve and we believe in.’ Carol, can you tell me how is Jacob? Is the aneurism’s, are they still there? What’s going on with Jacob? He has one large aneurism still, in his left coronary artery, which we treat with Coumadin and aspirin to help keep his blood thin so that we don’t have any more clots. And Jacob, what are your favorite things to do?
I like to play Lego’s, run in my running club, play with my dog, play piano even though I don’t like to practice, and that’s it. So did you think that Roger was a show off today, too? No. No? Carol, what lessons in grace did you learn from having to go through this?
I’ve learned so many lessons. But I think the one that just keeps coming back to me is that I am not in control. I certainly don’t deserve the miracles that God has bestowed upon our family, but for some reason He’s allowed us to live as long as we have and we are so grateful for that. And I am not in control and if I just remember that every day, I have to die to myself and say Lord I cannot do this without You. That is what keeps me going, that is what keeps our family going, and we are just so grateful for the life that God gives us in thinking that, that I don’t have to control any of this. It’s all up to Him.
Yes. Thank you Carol, thank you Jacob. And the lesson in grace that I learned through this is God’s grace IS big enough to erase our sins. I don’t care how bad, how terrible, how awful, God’s grace is big enough. His power is big enough to carry us through our toughest times and we are in tough times, we are having terrible, terrible times, many of us. Life is not the way we would have chosen for it to be. It’s not the way we scripted it to be, and yet God is there and may you find encouragement and faith through a testimony like Carol’s.
It was late at night and I was finishing up my dissertation and so I was checking my e-mails and there was an e-mail from one of the young father’s and our cohort, Kurt. And his e-mail message was titled simply, “My Mother.” Curious, I opened it and he was telling me about how his mother was in stage four brain cancer and only had a few days left to live. And Kurt said, ‘Sheila, never in a million years would I think I’d be writing you this e-mail, but mom was at the Cathedral for Glory of Christmas and Glory of Easter. Is there any possibility we can have her memorial service there?’ ‘Of course,’ I wrote him back, ‘of course Kurt and if you’d like me to bring a pastor to your house, let me know. Here’s my phone number.’
Well the next morning, the phone rang and his wife Lisa called and she said ‘Sheila, Kurt really would like you to come and bring a pastor because Mom hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in the last two days. We know that the end is near.’ And so I ran over to Kurt’s house and he met me out on the driveway. To see a man, a young man who’s a principal, whose eyes are red and swollen and who is weeping on your shoulder because he’s getting ready to say good bye to his mother, it’s a heart rending place to be. He led me into the house and as he did, he said ‘the end is near; the end is near, Sheila.’
And his mom was laying there in the living room in a hospice bed and behind her she had a screen and it was papered with pictures and cards that were some made by children because she works in schools. And there she lay, Julia, she looked so young. I don’t think there was a wrinkle on her face. Her cheeks were still rosy, her eyes were closed, her head was bald. I went over and I laid my hand on her head, expecting that to be prickly, stubbly but it was like a baby, soft fuzz. I choked up quite a bit as I said a prayer over her and tried to recite the 23rd Psalm because behind me were her two sons sobbing throughout the whole prayer and scripture verse.
At the end, on impulse, I said ‘Kurt, has your mom ever been baptized?’ He said ‘no.’ I said ‘do you think she would like to be?’ He went over to her and I didn’t think she would be responsive but he said ‘mom would you like to be baptized?’ Amazingly, her eyes popped open. With a strong voice she said, ‘yes.’ So we quick got a bowl from the kitchen and Bob Cavinder, the commissioned pastor that was with me said, ‘Julia, do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Then I baptize you in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
We looked around the room and I said ‘Kurt would you and your wife and children like to be baptized?’ And he said, ‘yes, we would like that very much.’ With tears streaming down their face, we said ‘Kurt, Lisa, children, do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ ‘And we baptize you in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
John, would you like to be baptized too?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m okay.’ So we kind of talked a little bit about Julia, how she was a modern day Gidget, she loved the ocean, she taught her boys how to surf and we were getting ready to say good bye and then John said, ‘wait, wait, I would like to be baptized.’ And bawling like a baby, crying, sobbing, we said ‘John do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior’ and he said, ‘yes I do.’ ‘Then John, we baptize you in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit, Amen.’
When we finished baptizing John, Julia, who had been watching all of it from her bed, closed her eyes for the last time. She left, gave her children, her boys the best gift of all. She, by leading the way, she said yes to the gift of grace. She said yes. I say, say yes to God, say yes to grace, and receive and pass on the greatest gift of all. In fact, I want you to say it with me today. Say yes, say yes, say yes, say yes to God, say yes to grace.
Jesus is right there on the doorstep. And I like to think of Him, He’s on the porch and He’s got a big gift for you, all gift wrapped. You didn’t have to go shopping, you didn’t have to wrap it, you didn’t have to buy it. All you have to do is open the door and accept it.
Let us pray: Almighty God, heavenly Father, gracious Savior, You have the power to erase my sins. You have the power to carry me through anything. So I say yes to You. I say yes to grace. I say yes to accepting and passing on this gift to those I love more than life itself. Even though we’ve had to learn it the hard way, grace is always worth the price. Thank You for paying it for us, Amen.